Star Struck

by

09/22/2001

22 Cortlandt street, new york, ny 10007

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

“You have star quality. “

My aunt once wrote this to me in a get-well letter. It had been our joke; years before, she had been the nanny in the house of a well-known film director, and these were the only words his parrot knew. And now my aunt had actually said them to me. Star quality evoked images of a man with a suntanned face, thick black hair, gleaming white teeth, and an ascot. I, on the other hand, was sixteen and had mononucleosis.

I’ve had my share of movie star crushes. When I was ten I joined the Gene Wilder fan club, and eagerly flipped through the bubble-gum trading cards. No matter that he had Brillo hair and the voice of a constipated librarian. He was adorable, funny, endearing: he was a star. When I was older, I developed a crush on more square-jawed movie actors. I swooned over Robert DeNiro and Harrison Ford. And I insisted my boyfriend slick his hair back a la Al Pacino in the Godfather.

Yet the few times when I did brush elbows with movie stars, I found myself, whether I liked them or not, staring, open-mouthed and speechless. On the Sunday afternoon before the World Trade Center disaster occurred I saw Paulie Shore in SoHo. His nasal cooing, torn jeans and too-many-bandanas irritated me when he was on television, and yet I found myself unable to not stare when I saw him on Spring Street: there he was.

And then, September 11th.

The World Trade Center tragedy has altered all our realities. Some, of course, more chaotically and devastatingly than others. But all of us have been affected. And with that shift of reality, perspective is transformed, priorities change, emotions are sharpened. And star quality has been redefined.

This past Friday night, I walked into a bar with a friend when I saw him. Just sitting there. I had seen him on television, in movies, photographed and interviewed. And now, there he was.

A fireman.

He sat in uniform at a table with two women friends, having a beer. A full pint sat in front of him, right next to his gas mask. He looked drained, as if he had just finished his shift. I found myself examining the women enviously. For a moment, I expected glamorous Hollywood types. They were, after all, with a star. But they weren’t glamorous. They were just two women having a beer with a friend. But there it was: that familiar feeling of being dumbstruck. A fireman. One of those heroes, one of those guys we’ve heard so much about. The day of the bombings a news reporter said when the blast from the second tower hit, a fireman rushed to her, and pushing her against the wall of a building, covered her body with his own. Things like that only happened in the movies. It was too romantic to be true. And now one of Them sat there, simply talking and drinking a beer. I snuck glances at him, as well as the women he chose to be with. Was he afraid? What kind of beer was he drinking? Where did he live? I walked slowly past him again as I left. His gas mask had a purple stripe on it. Purple seemed so frivolous a color right now. Was he was exhausted? Having nightmares? My heart raced, I snuck one last glance. I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn’t. He was too important. I was just too nervous; he was larger than life.

This Saturday, after more than a week, I finally saw my next-door neighbor, Randy, a fireman. I had talked to his wife and knew that he and his brother, also a fireman, were fine. “Fine” has been redefined as well. It now means alive. Dispirited, exhausted, mourning, but fine. Late one night, three days after the bombing I heard noises in my hallway. I peered through the peephole and saw Randy coming home from his shift. I saw the blue short sleeve shirt of his uniform. It seemed incomprehensible that he and I shared the same plumbing.

And on this Saturday, I was standing on the corner talking to another neighbor when he approached us. He was no longer Randy, my neighbor, a quiet husband and father of two schreechingly loud children. Walking towards us from across the street he was something else. Something more. He had been “there” seen all of “it,” put others lives before his own. “Thanks for your note.” He smiled shyly, as always. Here was someone I saw almost every week. Every month, the corner of each our Verizon bill envelopes poked through bottom of our mailboxes. Now, I found myself almost speechless. I shrugged and smiled. “How are you?” I asked. Now he shrugged. “I’m here.” He walked away. I had noticed his slightly pigeon toed walk before, but it was simply the walk of a neighbor. Someone who got up too early on Saturdays and let his children scream in the hallway. Now, suddenly, I was mesmerized and in love with that walk.

Flipping through the movie channels now, Robert DeNiro seems a little shorter. Julia Robert’s lips seem floppier. Harrison Ford’s chin looks a little weak, and Gene Wilder. Well, I haven’t been able to find him.

In J.M. Barrie’s play “The Admirable Crighton,” a household of passengers find themselves on a deserted island after a shipwreck. Roles are transformed when the master suddenly finds himself ineffective. Crighton, the butler, meanwhile, easily assumes role of leader; he creates order and the ability to live on the island. But soon they are rescued, and once home, previous roles are resumed, and the life-saving feats of the butler are quickly dismissed. He quietly resumes his unseen, but necessary role.

For many like me, it took a tragedy to see the glory and altruism in the everyday job of firefighters. I can’t say that I won’t gawk at a movie star or even an MTV V-jay if I happen to see one. But I now see star quality for what it’s really worth. And it won’t take another disaster again to appreciate it. The face of a star may be tanned, but chances are it’s dark from soot. He may have thick hair, or he may be completely bald. You probably won’t get a chance to see his whether or not his teeth are sparkling until he takes his gas mask off. Chances are he won’t be wearing an ascot. And he would certainly never expect to be asked for his autograph.

But he should.

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